NILAVRONILL: Do you think literature or poetry is really essential in our life? If so why?
LOPA BANERJEE: Yes, poetry, literature and any kind of art form is entirely essential in every phase of human life, not only because it helps us to nurture the seed of creativity within us as artists, poets and thinkers, but also to build a more sensitive, empathetic world with refined values in the process of creating that art. Every day, we grow with our poems, stories, our art, and become a small part of the collective consciousness of the universe, and it strengthens us from within in myriad unexplained ways.
NILAVRONILL: How does it relate to the general history of mankind?
LOPA BANERJEE: Throughout the course of human history, literature, has made its iconic place and remained our richest cultural and artistic legacy. If Beowulf, Canterbury Tales by Chaucer or Divine Comedy by Dante had not been written, mankind wouldn’t have evolved into literary expressions and the art of narrative storytelling. Poetry, with its cascade-like flow of rhythm, sound and meter, has given shape and dimension to human emotions since time immemorial, and the epics of all times and all cultures, from The Ramayana and The Mahabharata to The Iliad and Odyssey have beautifully depicted the social, cultural, mythological fabric of our diverse, wonderful universe. Poetry and literature, since the ancient times, has documented happenings in human history and also offered insights in myriad ways which nothing else could, so subtly and evocatively.
NILAVRONILL: Our readers would like to know your own personal experience regarding the importance of literature and poetry in your life.
LOPA BANERJEE: My early introduction to the literary world that happened during my undergraduate days in Kolkata, India, helped me widen my horizons one bit at a time, and since then it has gained momentum, year after year. From an early age, I somehow instinctively felt that creativity was a gift, whenever I felt emotions strongly from within, which our culture taught us to suppress.
However, my writing journey didn’t start in a day, but as an organic process with the studies of English literature since my formative years in college and university in Kolkata. The study of poetry, drama and fiction has shaped my persona in many inexplicable ways. The essence of it all grew on me with time, as I evolved as a writer in the later years.
NILAVRONILL: Who were your favorite writers during the early period of your life? And how they have paved your early routes in literature?
LOPA BANERJEE: Being a student of English literature in India during my undergraduate days and my Masters’ in English coursework, the study of classics was essential and it shaped my psyche and my literary expressions in myriad ways. The earliest memory of reading a classic work of literature is that of reading Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’, and getting immersed in the dramatic, gothic, engrossing world of the protagonists. Pip, Heathcliff, Estella and Catherine became a part of my own consciousness. This was also the time we all were reading poetry of the romantic and Victorian age, and the modern period eventually. In the course of this journey of mine, both poetry and prose have walked together, hand-in-hand, and I have drenched myself in the essence of both these apparently diverse forms. What would you say of Maya Angelou or Alice Walker who walked through the fire of their own stories, celebrating the poetry of life itself? What about the prose of Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, or in our very own Indian writing, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitabha Ghosh, Arundhati Roy? I’ve found a lyrical quality in many of their stories. Even some of Oscar Wilde’s short stories I have grew up reading were deeply poetic in their very essence. Short stories as a genre of literature have appealed me since my formative years of reading and writing. I have been fascinated by the classic short stories of Guy De Maupassant, O Henry, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Anton Chekov, and many more. James Joyce’s ‘Araby’ is a staple favorite of mine. In Indian Writing in English, the short stories of Kamala Das in her book ‘The Kept Woman and Other Stories’ have touched me immensely as a woman and as a writer and I keep going back to them. Recently I have been reading some stories by Sadat Hasan Manto translated into English and among them, I foundsome real gems, likeTen Rupees, Khushiya, Cold Flesh among others. In Bengali literature, Rabindranath Tagore and his magnum opus collection of stories ‘Galpaguchchho’ inspires me immensely in terms of storytelling, characterization and the messages that each story unfolds in the collection. Cumulatively, they have shaped my persona and my literary consciousness, long before I came into the writing world.
NILAVRONILL: Now coming back to the present time, do you think people in general actually bother about literature in general? Do you think this consumerist world is turning the average man away from serious literature?
LOPA BANERJEE: It is a fast-paced world today, and people are busy juggling multiple jobs, careers, myriad responsibilities and are unknowingly sinking into a deep vortex of insensitivity, as the inevitable result of not reading enough, not thinking enough. We cannot blame them, as the times are excruciating, and the ends they have to meet leave them with little option to think about serious literature, let along pursuing it as a study. Also there are various distractions in the form of entertainment. It is the world of audio-visuals, electronic media, gaming, social media and a lot of intellectual nurturing through the process of reading is at stake. I will feel genuinely bad about our next generation if they never know how classic literature can transform lives.
However, having said this, I want to add that it is also the best age where we can amalgamate various forms of media and form our own creative microcosm. For example, audio-visual poetry, poetry films, audiobooks, podcasts and other forms might open up unexplored vistas for our creative projects, and enable us to make the best out of a not-so-motivating scenario. Social media, I also think, has enabled various platforms for writers and artists to share their works mutually and be part of significant online collaborations, which is helpful enough, in my opinion.
NILAVRONILL: Now if we try to understand the tradition and modernism, do you think literature can play a pivotal role in it? If so, how?
LOPA BANERJEE: Since early on, as I read classics and loved the ambiance they created in terms of the characterization, narration, backdrop, imagery among other things, my psyche has been shaped to a large extent by those readings, and later when I delved into modern literature, the context of the current times, the crisis and restlessness and the spirit of change, rebellion in it empowered my sensibilities. The urgency to break away from the traditional norms of structure and expression in modernist art, culture and literature has been reflected in various works of not only literature, but also in art, music, sculpture, architecture. Us being poets and writers, can be part of this legacy of transition, dissent and empowerment by embracing modernism and its various elements. The role of modernism in literature that started from the late 19th and early 20th century has been immensely important, as it is the experimentation with literary forms and expressions which started with modernism, and it has been a legacy that we are consciously or subconsciously as part of now, as writers.
NILAVRONILL: Again, how can an individual writer relate himself or herself with the tradition and modernism?
LOPA BANERJEE: An individual writer’s thoughts in our current times have largely been shaped by the modernist movement, which again, is a cumulative movement in art, music, literature and humanities. By embracing modernism, he/she expresses the new sensibilities of our turbulent times, while also understanding and internalizing the enduring traditional modes of representation. In fact, a balance between both will culminate in literature with lasting, universal value. While we need to look at the societal changes of modernism, we also need to embrace the traditional richness which has been part of our literary legacy.
NILAVRONILL: Do you think society as a whole, is the key factor in shaping you up as a poet, or your poetry altogether?
LOPA BANERJEE: I would rather describe it this way: the various elements of place, family and relationships (if these can be seen as integral elements of the kind of society that I grew up in) have shaped both my persona and my writing. I would say, these elements have made me an author with a leaning towards diaspora writing, both in poetry and prose. In my memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, there is this emotional urgency to go back to my Kolkata roots, and rediscover my childhood, my identity as the daughter. At the same time, I try to portray my life as a lover, wife, mother and a writer in USA, my adopted home and the myriad experiences here which are organically connected to my journey of self-discovery. I guess that is the essence of diaspora writing: referring to the oscillation between the two worlds, the one which I belonged to, and the other that I am a part of now. In my book ‘Woman and Her Muse’, there is a section, ‘KOLKATA: The poetry in which I breathe’, which is quite self-explanatory. Like an old lover, Kolkata keeps coming back to me and reclaims me. However, ‘Home’ is a very fluid concept to me and I really don’t think it is any singular place. I am equally at home in my adopted cities in USA where I have lived with my family, as I am when I go to Kolkata for my annual trips. Speaking of social upheavals which are a part of our growing consciousness every day, they also feature in my writing, but in a more metaphorical, organic way. Since my writing is more symbolic, I do refrain from making overt statements, but yes, overall, our socio-political scenario does affect my consciousness as an artist.
NILAVRONILL: Coming to the present time, how does politics in general influence you in your writings?
LOPA BANERJEE: Not really, as I consider myself an apolitical person. I do not subscribe to any political views, left, right or center, and believe in art and literature as my sole religion. As far as the political ideologies of my poet and writer friends are concerned, I respect all of them, and even if there are differences in opinion, which I see often these days in the social media, there should always be respectful ways to disagree, which I often find lacking in people, due to their general impatience and intolerance. We are living in stressful, hurtful times already, and with our art, I think we just aim to achieve a catharsis of our everyday emotions. However, many of my poems and stories do address societal issues, without the need or urgency to preach, or give out a social message overtly. If it can be read as a literary piece and make the readers think, my purpose of writing the piece is accomplished by and large.
NILAVRONILL: Are you feminist? Can literature play any decisive role in feminism at all?
LOPA BANERJEE: ‘Feminism’, the coinage to me converges with the social construct of being a woman and also with pushing many of the boundaries that patriarchy has inflicted on a woman since the advent of myths, allegories and scriptures. It is definitely a sensitive word, keeping in mind the still rampant trend of female feticide, dowry deaths, lack of education of girl children, female genital mutilation and other evils inflicted on the ‘fairer sex’ in certain parts of India and the world. However, having said that, I must also add that the idea of sensationalizing feminism by one-time slogans and mad outpourings, male-bashing and ludicrous advertisements makes little or no sense to me, since the need of the hour is the sensitivity to understand and acknowledge the inner strength of a woman, the inexplicable bounty of a girl child. When the members of my own family call me a ‘feminist’ as I have gone ahead and written about women-oriented issues, about how discrimination towards females have impacted my psyche, I feel it is because the patriarchal construct ingrained in our minds till now limits our peripheries, and compartmentalizes into various ‘isms’ because somehow, that kind of categorization is the easy way out. On the other hand, it is high time we understand that a woman, as a human, is above and beyond the stereotypical denominations of ‘feminism’. It does not limit her role if she chooses to stay out of the so-called ‘assignments’ designed for her, including matrimony and motherhood. She can be her own universe and be a complete entity in her own right, if she is blessed with inner strength. In literature, feministic writings, starting from Simone De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ to Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath’s works, and in our own subcontinent, Kamala Das, Ashapoorna Debi, Amrita Pritam and many other strong female writers’ works have been phenomenal in how they could break the shackles of the patriarchal society and come out in the open with their subversive voices, after generations of systematic silence. These literary works by the phenomenal women writers I have mentioned have been considered canonical in the way they reflect on the societal truths of their times and the emotional, intellectual responses of the writers to those truths.
NILAVRONILL: Do you believe that all writers are by and large the product of their nationality and is it an incentive or an obstacle for becoming a truly international writer?
LOPA BANERJEE: In my own writing, I have largely been shaped by my own cultural tidbits, my ethnic sensibilities and the richness of my country India’s heritage. However, over the years, living in my adopted land, America has enabled me to imbibe global values, extend my horizons by perceiving an all-inclusive society comprising of people with multiple nationalities, languages, culture and vision, and seeing myself as a small part of this ‘interconnected web of human stories’, as described by author John Green. This knowledge and realization will, along the way, empower me and other diaspora writers with a broader perspective and greater insight about our existence as empathetic collaborators in this world, with our poetry and prose. Hence, the amalgamation of both nationalism and international sensibilities are utmost important to develop and sustain a mature psyche.
NILAVRONILL: What role can literature play to make our lives better on a day to day basis?
LOPA BANERJEE: To quote my favorite poet Rumi’s lines: ‘Only from the heart can you touch the sky.’ Poetry and literature have given us that ability to extend the emotional landscape of our imaginations and touch that sky with the might of our pen. The world is still worth living in spite of all turmoil and uncertainty because poets, writers, artists, musicians can weave alternate realities with their art and transform our mundane everyday.
LOPAMUDRA BANERJEE is an author, poet, translator, editor with six books and four anthologies in fiction and poetry. She lives in Dallas, Texas with her family, but is originally from Kolkata, India. She has been a recipient of the Journey Awards (First Place category winner) for her memoir ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’, and also a recipient of the Woman Achiever Award (IWSFF, 2018), the International Reuel Prize for Poetry (2017) and International Reuel Prize for her English translation of Nobel Laureate Tagore’s selected works of fiction (2016). Her nonfiction essays, fiction and other writings have been published in various journals, e-zines and anthologies in India, UK and USA. She is also a consulting editor of the literary e-zine ‘Learning and Creativity’, India. Recently, she has been a featured poet at Rice University, Houston and her poems have also been featured at Stanford University’s ‘Life in Quarantine’ project recently. She has co-produced the poetry film ‘Kolkata Cocktail’ directed by Shuvayu Bhattacharjee, where she has also featured as one of the lead actors. Her works are available on her website www.lopabanerjeewrites.com and also in Amazon.com and Amazon India.